Expecting the unexpected: Many emergency crews work behind the scenes

Cornbelt Fire Protection District Chief John Koller expects call volume in 2018 to shatter last year's 1,105 Emergency Medical Services and fire rescue calls, which was a record. In the past two weeks, Cornbelt personnel responded to three fires in and near Mahomet.

On March 28, crews responded to a residential kitchen fire in the 100 block of North Turner Drive at 9:47 a.m. Koller's squad also battled an hour-long blaze in the 1800 block of County Road 400 E, south of the village, at a corn crib. A day earlier, the team put out a residential basement fire in the 400 block of East Union Street at approximately 10:30 p.m.

"It's a team effort," Koller said.

Beyond the red trucks and the flashing lights are numerous other companies, organizations and volunteers who work behind the scenes to assist victims.

The first point of contact is often Champaign's Metropolitan Computer-Aided Dispatch (METCAD), which services Champaign County. The 911 call center dispatches ambulances, fire departments and police, not to mention the calm, well-trained professionals they provide. They are often responsible for ensuring the safety of a caller before first responders set foot on scene.

"We are the after-hours point for a lot of city services initially," said Betsy Smith, operations manager at METCAD. "People don't know where to call, so they call us."

Taking around 300,000 calls a year, Smith said METCAD handles both emergency and nonemergency calls.

"A lot of people call 911 when they don't have an emergency, and on the flip side, we have people call the nonemergency number when they really have something important going on. We tend to lump it all together, because it's a little gray for people."

Smith defined an emergency situation as a matter of life safety or an event that is in progress, such as a break-in.

"Those are the things we definitely want to be aware of, and we want to get somebody out there as quickly as possible," she said.

Equipped with 31 telecommunicators, Smith said each representative completes nearly six months of training, which includes in-classroom and online training, along with experiencing live phone calls, as well as earning CPR, AED and other state and nationwide law enforcement computer certification.

In addition to the demanding shift, the hardest part of the position is the constant change in direction.

"We move from the parking problem that happens to be the shooting, the stabbing or the home invasion," she said. "We're on the phone call for about five to seven minutes. When we're done with that call, we go back to the parking problem, and we really have to change gears. We require people to be very flexible and that can be really stressful for people."

The inability to know the end result is also sometimes difficult for Smith and her staff. Admittedly checking newspapers for updated information, Smith said her crew looks for ways to fill in the missing pieces.

"Not knowing how things end up and that we don't get to see that resolution, whether it's a happy ending or a not-so-happy ending, we often don't get that part," she added.

Focusing their efforts on the scene, the difficulty for crews becomes the ability to provide adequate attention to the victims of fires or other emergency situations. The Champaign-Urbana Emergency Service Support Team, formed in 1996, better serves its community and other locations within the county, including Mahomet, in meeting the needs of victims on the scene.

"Every time I would get off the firetruck or get back on for a fire, people would look at us and say, 'thank you, thank you,' then they'd turn around and they'd see their house was gone," ESST director Lon Pitcher said. "They didn't know what to do."

Pitcher's crew of 26 volunteer their time to aid fire and police departments so that they may focus on the task at hand. ESST volunteers are on scene with victims until the Central Illinois American Red Cross is able to step in.

"Our window of helping somebody is from an hour to three hours," Pitcher said. "We find a loved one or a minister to come out and help the family, and then we turn it over to them and check on them the next day."

Handling 40 to 50 calls per year, Pitcher said his squad works rotating shifts to provide anything necessary for the victims, such as a free 24-hour hotel stay, free cab fare for a one-way trip to the hotel, contacting family members, sharing resources for how best to contact their insurance company and much more.

"You just can't believe all the things that go on in a fire," Pitcher said. "All of the extra things that no one has any idea about, such as what to do with your goods or stuff."

Serving the Champaign Fire Department for approximately 42 years, Pitcher has seen his fair share of unfortunate situations, but his favorite part of the work is serving the community alongside a courageous cast of volunteers.

"They're the boots on the ground," he said. "They're the people in there with the tears and heartbreaks. When I talk to them, they feel good about what they did. I'm glad I can do the networking and everything for them."

A defining moment for the ESST director was when he was able to assist a mother and daughter on a cold, snowy day. After a fire, he went to Walmart and purchased several coats for the parent and child and brought them back to the hotel room and asked them to pick out a couple items.

"The mother turned to me and said, 'No, she'll only pick out one of them because someone else might need something tonight,'" Pitcher said. "That just got to me. Here this lady had just got done losing her house, and then she would only let her daughter pick out one coat because somebody else might need one."

Six months later, Pitcher was on the scene of another house fire and a woman approached him and asked if he remembered her. He was unsure until he turned and saw the coat worn by a little girl at her side. The mother informed him that the home belonged to her relative, and she asked if he could help her relative similarly to how he helped her, and Pitcher agreed.

"I got this other lady there from the support team and got them settled and she (the mother) brought her coat that I gave to the mom of the little girl and gave it to her (relative)," Pitcher recalled. "She said, 'Since then Mr. Pitcher I've had a job so I'm going to give this coat to her so you don't have to take one off your truck.'"

Prior to the formation of the organization, Pitcher said individuals often stayed with relatives or friends, and some even were forced with the decision to sleep in their vehicles.

Looking for a couple Mahomet community members to join, Pitcher said the rewarding part of being an ESST volunteer is knowing you made a difference in someone's life.

"It's knowing when you walk away that the person is set so they can get their life back together," he shared.

The Central Illinois American Red Cross also assists families during disastrous situations by sending a team, often consisting of volunteers. Trish Burnett, regional communications director, said the No. 1 disaster her team responds to is house fires. The organization provides families financial assistance with clothing, food, hotel expenses, housing, medical equipment, medicine and more.

"We work on a recovery plan and what resources we can get them so they can get back on a path to recovery. A home fire is a devastating thing for a family. We're their advocates and their friends as someone to lean on at that time."

After a fire, key players such as the Mutual Aid Box Alarm System provide key insight to fire investigations. Dave Parsons, a certified arson investigator for MABAS, captain for the Cornbelt Fire Protection District and patrolman for the Mahomet Police Department, said the key to understanding a fire is asking the fire and police departments on scene as well as the residents and witnesses what they each saw take place, along with taking pictures and general observations.

"It's like putting a puzzle together," Parsons said. "You do the best you can to get an idea of where the fire originated."

Beyond assisting insurance companies, Parsons said the investigation often provides closure for the homeowner to finally know the cause, if any, of the fire.

State Farm insurance agent Darwyn Boston said the key to dealing with the aftermath of a fire is for victims to call their insurance agent as quickly as possible. He also recommended residents meet with their agent to review their policy before disaster strikes.

"So many people are learning for the first time," Boston said. "Every three years, you should really review your policy and meet with your agency."

Aside from the general safety tips of checking carbon monoxide detectors, fire extinguishers and smoke alarms, both Boston and Burnett agree the key is preparedness. Burnett noted sometimes children who have not received proper guidance and preparedness may hide from firefighters or sleep through alarms.

"Have a home fire preparedness plan and do everything you can to be prepared," Burnett said. "We talk about stranger danger, we're worried about social media, but home fires are devastating and you've got to spend some time with your kiddos and practice."

These unseen volunteers, organizations and companies in the Champaign County area assist families during what is often referred to as one of their worst days. Each one is a "huge help" for Koller in allowing both he and his crew to focus on putting out fires.

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